When I tell about my experience in the DPRK, the first question I typically hear is, “wait, did you say you went to North Korea?” quickly followed by “but why?” as disbelief turns into confusion. That’s a fair question. Should my writing a blog not make it obvious that I’m pretty passionate about the DPRK, I thought I’d provide a couple answers.
Let’s start with the basics. I love travel. I enjoy everything about travel, starting with the journey itself—I am a true airline geek, and my top-tier status on a major airline, combined with a stockpile of miles and a flexible job, give me a tremendous amount of freedom for which I am truly grateful. With many destinations at my fingertips, I’ve covered Asia pretty extensively and it just made sense to add a more unusual pin to my travel map.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Going to the DPRK has been on my wish list for many years. It was somewhat of a fantasy that I didn’t dare explore any earlier.
I was born in Western Europe, two hours away from communism. Of course, expressing distances as times is an American paradigm—whereas one can drive for many hours in the US without seeing anything noteworthy, the density and diversity of Europe are such that a two-hour flight spans across a broad range of cultures and languages. Indeed, as a kid, communism certainly didn’t feel that it was close to home. Maybe it’s a matter of education—it was hardly a topic at school, to the point that when my parents took me to Germany as a kid I naïvely asked if we’d go to the East or the West. Or maybe it’s a cultural issue—we were better off ignoring the “wall of shame.” The closest I ever got to seeing communism as a child was through a short trip to East Berlin a year or so after the wall fell. It was basically a sea of cranes, but there were still many remnants of communist architecture—far more than there are now. When I moved to the US as a college student, almost 10 years later, my perception of distances was altered, and I realized with stupor how close and yet so far I had been from History, and how much I had missed out.
I find dictatorships fascinating. The concept of a criminal state, the cult of personality, propaganda, the rise and fall of dictators are thrilling. I can’t help but wonder what goes on in the mind of a dictator, and what such power feels like—although I’m afraid it basically comes down to living in constant fear. I remember following the Gulf war with interest when I was a teenager. Years later, porous borders, advances in technologies, and embedded journalists during the second war all culminated into the production of a number of fascinating books and documentaries about Saddam Hussein and life in Iraq, of which I avidly read and watched a fair share. Then the system toppled. Months later, I came across the blog of an individual who, seeing that Saddam was removed, no one had really assumed control, and the situation was still relatively safe for outsiders, crossed the border as a tourist. He came back with the most extraordinary pictures and artifacts. By the time I read his blog, things had gone downhill. I had missed out again.
Never again, I decided; and I resolved to seeing communism in action while there was still time. Indeed, there are few possibilities left, and the DPRK is a prime candidate. I wanted to live history, get behind the curtain, understand what it feels like to be trapped in a system and lose my freedom, and find out whether the pictures of socialist countries projected by western media matched reality.
There was one caveat, though. Traveling to a communist country implies supporting the regime. Whatever the traveler’s actual feelings may be, their cash helps keep the system alive. In fact, the primary reason the DPRK lets tourists in is because it’s a reliable source of “hard” (aka foreign) currency. I will touch on the details in the next post, but suffice to say that there is no cheap way to go to Korea, and that your money, by large, goes into a single pocket. From a moral standpoint, it’s a delicate situation.
A year ago, as I was researching a trip to Seoul, Republic of Korea, it naturally occurred to me that I should tour the DMZ. The more details I read about the process, the more absurd things felt. Visitors are required to dress well, presumably to impress the North (not so long ago, jeans weren’t allowed.) Security is tight and tourists need to attend a briefing ahead of their tour. Pictures are tightly controlled, and photographing the South’s facilities at the demarcation line is forbidden—in case one sells pictures of the surveillance devices to the enemy, maybe? At the Dora observatory which overlooks the northern side of the parallel, visitors are only allowed to make pictures behind an arbitrary yellow line. It felt like a kafkaian protocol—or a form of propaganda, as a matter of fact. I decided that I had to see for myself what was on the other side. All things considered, my financial contributions would do little to help the regime, while the act of traveling, hopefully meeting locals, and coming back to the west to talk about the experience might perhaps do much more for the sake of this world.
That’s how, a couple of months later, I was on my way to Pyongyang.
In pictures: the southern side of the DMZ (October 2011)